DES MOINES — A controversial voting rule targeting immigrants without U.S. citizenship will take effect this month after a state oversight committee failed to stop it Friday, but activists are threating an immediate court fight.
The rule, proposed by Secretary of State Matt Schultz, establishes a way to remove from voter registration lists an individual whose citizenship is questioned. The Republican says the change is needed to reduce voter fraud, which he’s made his key issue, but opponents say the rule intimidates immigrants who are citizens.
The Administrative Rules Review Committee voted 5-5 along party lines on a motion to object to the rule. But since the objection needed six votes to pass, the rule will automatically take effect March 27. The legislative panel oversees state government agency rules and is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.
Schultz first proposed the change just a few weeks before November’s general election, but a Polk County judge blocked it after a lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa. The ACLU said Friday it would do the same on the day the new rule takes effect.
The rule will allow Schultz’s office to compare Iowa driver’s license forms, on which applicants declare their citizenship status, with a federal immigration list designed to show if immigrants are eligible for government services.
If a person shows up on either list as a noncitizen and their name is found in voter registration rolls, the secretary of state’s office will send a letter challenging the voter registration. The letter also will tell the individual that registering to vote without citizenship is a felony. The name of anyone whose citizenship isn’t proven through the process would be forwarded to a local county election official for removal from the voter registration list.
Sen. Pam Jochum, a Dubuque Democrat, made the motion to object to the rule, saying state law specifically gives only the Legislature authority to change voter registration rules that could remove voters.
“It comes down to something pretty simple. Has the secretary of state crossed the line between the executive branch of government and the legislative branch of government? In my opinion from reading the law, he has,” she said.
Sen. Mark Chelgren, an Ottumwa Republican, countered by saying the rule follows current law by allowing only local election officials to remove a voter once it’s clear the voter isn’t a U.S. citizen.
“Laws we have placed forth signed by a governor says the only agency that can remove voters from rolls is at the local county level,” he said. “This shows the secretary of state’s office is very conscious of that issue and they don’t take action themselves but contact local county officials asking them to review it further.”
Several speakers opposed the rule, including retired Des Moines teacher Cherie Mortice. She said it was “a solution in search of a problem” that was unnecessary because Iowa already has laws that prevent noncitizens from voting.
“Taxpayers don’t want tax money used to fix a system that is not broken,” she said. “This is a horrible idea that is nothing more than voter suppression.”
But John Strathman, of Cumming, said he visited more than 3,000 homes as an election volunteer conducting surveys in 2012. He used voter registration rolls to visit voters and found people who had moved, vacant homes and even empty lots that had be given as the address for voters.
“I see a real need for efforts to try and ensure the accuracy of the registration rolls,” he said.
The ACLU of Iowa, supported by the League of Women Voters, the League of United Latin American Citizens and other groups, asked the committee to halt implementation of the rule, saying it should go through the Legislature.
But since the committee failed to stop the rule, the ACLU plans to challenge it in court on the day it takes effect, ACLU attorney Rita Bettis said.
“We will be seeking all remedies available to us in order to have this rule struck down,” Bettis said.
Schultz acknowledged the rule would end up in court, but he said he was determined to move ahead.
“I just think politics are being played to try and hurt me personally rather than to try and do the right thing,” he said. “I’m not afraid to stand up and fight for what I believe and I’ll continue to do that.”